A Tramp Abroad: Observations of a Former Expat and Frequent Traveler in German-speaking Europe

As I find myself rediscovering many aspects of daily life in Germany, Austria and Switzerland, I can’t help but think of Mark Twain, who wrote so masterfully about his travels in Germany and Europe in A Tramp Abroad (1880, translated into German as “Bummel durch Europa,” including his essay on “The Awful German Language”). As I was zooming along the autobahn in my leased Peugeot the other day, the same thoughts entered my mind that occur to me when I motor across the vast deserts of the American West: How did people do this before there were cars, trains, planes, and the Internet?

Mark Twain’s mode of travel was certainly much slower, giving him a lot of time to contemplate the culture and sights he was experiencing. Mr. Clemens wrote with paper and pen. I’m writing on my laptop. He exaggerated and invented things at times. I may also exaggerate for effect, but I’ll try not to invent. Like me, Twain in A Tramp Abroad is no longer seeing Europe for the first time. “[A Tramp Abroad] has not the fresh frolicsomeness of the Innocents Abroad; it is Europe revisited, and seen through eyes saddened by much experience of tables d’hôte, old masters, and traveling Americans…” – William Dean Howells in The Atlantic.

That said, here are some of my own observations and rediscoveries, colored by long experience. Continue reading

On the Road Again: Renewing my Acquaintance with the German Autobahn

Today I drove from Frankfurt am Main to Berlin, a distance of about 550 km (342 mi). Most of that drive is on the iconic German Autobahn, and the trip reminded me that German drivers can be just as bad as American drivers, only at much higher speeds.

Autobahn A5

On the A5 autobahn headed for Berlin from Frankfurt am Main – with about 500 km left to go. PHOTO: Cheryl Flippo

It wasn’t the first time I’ve zoomed along the autobahn behind the wheel of a rental car. Over the years I’ve logged many kilometers on autobahns in Austria, France, Germany, and Switzerland. But the German autobahn is unique in two ways: (1) There are sections with no speed limit, and (2) you don’t need to pay an autobahn toll, as is the case in Austria, France, Switzerland, and many other countries.

There were stretches where I could really find out what my Peugeot 3008 diesel can really do. My cruising speed in those wonderful sections of the autobahn with no speed limit, and three lanes without a bunch of trucks was about 160 km/h (close to 100 mph). The car felt comfortable at 170 km/h (105 mph), and there were a few times I noticed I was hitting 170 or a little more. But even at 105 mph, some cars were passing me! Normally my standard speed on the autobahn is about 130 km/h (81 mph), but today I was tempted by some wide open spans of concrete and a desire to get to Berlin before dark. Continue reading

White Knuckles

Galavanting about Europe in my early twenties, I spent a spring holiday in Italy. The journey began in Germany, meandering from Frankfurt down through the Black Forest, into Switzerland and through the Gotthard Tunnel (17 km!) to get to the Italian border. The entire landscape was breathtaking and awe-inducing, and the drive through Switzerland is still one of my favorite stretches of road anywhere. After a lovely week full of Italian food and culture, we headed back toward Germany to return our rental car. Just one little side note: it was my first time actually driving in Germany, and the trip to return the rental car was an hour and a half of Autobahn driving.

The Autobahn is famous worldwide for its seemingly un-German personality: carefree, unlimited, full-force driving. The experience of the Autobahn as a complete novice is something more like white-knuckles, sweaty-palms, full-force nerves. I spent my entire first trip as a solo driver on the Autobahn in a state of complete terror, gripping the steering wheel, following my leading driver, listening to static on the radio the entire trip because I was too afraid to look away from the road to find a new station on an unfamiliar car stereo. In fact, I think my muscles were sore the next day from all the tension. Continue reading

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (Part 2a)

Today I’m continuing my list of expat likes (the good), dislikes (the bad) and major gripes (the ugly) – all related to living in Germany. In Part 1 I began with “the bad,” but my “good” list has turned out to be even longer! So long in fact, that I need to split my “good” list in two. You can read the second half of the list in my next installment.

To reiterate: Germany is no more monolithic than the USA. Conservative Munich is not really anything like free-wheeling Berlin. But I have tried to list things that generally apply, and note those things that may be more regional in nature. Everyone’s good and bad list will be unique, but there are many cultural things that all expats in Germany can relate to. And, as I pointed out in my first section, I could make a similar list for life in the US. In fact, this German list is also a commentary in reverse on life in the US.

If you want a more neutral comparison of US and German culture, see our six German Way cultural comparison charts, starting with Driving.

My list is not prioritized! Since my “good” list has now grown to over 20 items, it would be even more difficult to rank them. For that reason, items in the list are not numbered. Okay, here we go, this time with the good… Continue reading

Comparing Germany and France and…

There was a time when I thought certain practices and cultural quirks were uniquely German (or Austrian or Swiss), but as I traveled around Europe more and more, I realized that some “German” things are actually European things. The fear of a draft or breeze, for instance, or tense and aggressive driving, and other cultural traits that differ from those in North America.

And yet there are also some interesting differences among the people in the various European countries. I was just in France for about a week. (And mostly without internet access in a remote area, which explains why this blog is a day late.) My wife and I drove across much of Germany, but as soon as we crossed the German-Belgian border (which is barely marked, by the way) I noticed a difference in driving styles on the autobahn (or whatever the Belgians call it). Since, unlike in Germany, there is a speed limit on freeways (130 km/h, or 80 mph) in Belgium (and most European countries), you don’t have to worry about someone suddenly coming out of nowhere in the left lane, doing literally 100 mph (161 km/h) as they zoom past you like you were standing still. In Germany you really need to look twice before venturing into the fast lane! Continue reading